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Sicilian Surnames - History and Onomatology
by Luigi Mendola

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Eccomi ca!"Your nephew, my dear Russo, will sincerely believe himself a baron. Maybe you, because of your name, will become descendant of a grand duke of Muscovy instead of some red-skinned peasant, which is what that name of yours means."
                         - The Prince of Salina in The Leopard

Russo, with its Italian variant Rosso, is indeed one of the most common surnames in Italy, as often referring to red hair as a reddish complexion - and yes, it does mean Russian, though that isn't how it found its way into Sicily. But before considering the origins and development (onomatology) of various surnames, it may be appropriate to dispel a few myths, perhaps using more tact than the fictional Prince of Salina.

The great majority of hereditary Sicilian surnames were assumed during the fifteenth century. Until then, the typical surname survived but a generation or two. Giuseppe Maniscalco, the blacksmith specialized in shoeing horses, might transmit his surname to his son, Giovanni, but only if the latter was likewise a blacksmith. In this way, when there was a familial occupation, a surname describing it might become hereditary. It was less likely that Matteo di Giovanni's patronymic surname, meaning "son of John," would be inherited by his own son unless the son happened to have borne the same given name as the father - an unusual practice in those times. At some point, as records became more rigid and there was an attempt to identify citizens for new forms of taxation, they were required to assume surnames, which in many cases must have been all but arbitrary.

At this point very late in the Middle Ages, most names derived from the local spoken language, Sicilian. Much changed from the prose of Ciullo of Alcamo and the medieval Sicilian School of court poetry, Sicilian is actually a Romance-based mixture of Latin, Greek, Arabic, Norman-French, Castilian and even German and Longobardic. Because of numerous cognates and direct borrowings, it was natural that many early Sicilian surnames bore the mark of these "foreign" tongues. Presti derived from the Greek for priest, Sciortino the Arabic for a kind of guard or spy, and so forth. Contrary to one of the most widespread misconceptions, the use of these names does not reflect descent from (in these two cases) Greeks or Arabs in the male line; it simply indicates the etymologies of the words from which the surnames were adapted based on linguistic influences that survived long after Sicily's Arabs and Byzantines were amalgamated to become Sicilians.

The "reasoning" is usually something like: "Surname X comes from the Norman-French word X so my X family must be Norman." It doesn't work that way because most of these surnames didn't exist (as surnames) before 1400. Moreover, as we'll see, most of the Norman knights in Sicily assumed toponymic surnames based on the names of their feudal estates, and these place names were usually of Latin, Greek or Arabic derivation. A man called Lombardo (Lombard), Saraceno (Saracen) or Greco (Greek) most likely assumed as a name the character he played in folk theatre (see "Folk Characters").

Nor do the numerous surnames translated directly from names or phrases originating in regions outside Sicily indicate foreign origins of the families using them. Among these we find: Anselmi for Anselm, Luigi for Louis, Giuffré for Godfrey, Federico for Frederick, Tancredi for Tancred, Orlando from Roland, Guzzardi from Goussard, Arnao from French Arnaud and German Arnwald, Grimaldi from Grimaud and Grimwald, Faraci from the Arabic farag (joy), Morabit from Arabic morabit ("street preacher" but also a specific Arab leader in the 13th century), Audino from Audin, Guarino from Guarin, Rollo (possibly from name of the Norse leader), Altavilla from Hauteville, Alemanni meaning "German," Saia from the Hebrew Isaiah, Saladino from the Arabic Saladin (literally "justice of the Faith"), Macaluso from the Arabic mahlus, "freed slave". Beginning in the thirteenth century, many Sicilians were named Luigi not because they had French ancestors but because the heart of Saint Louis was kept as a relic at Monreale and the French king was venerated here; Federico became frequent following the death of Frederick II in 1250.

Unfortunately, the misperception persists, with many Sicilians believing that every Sicilian surname having a Greek or Norman-French root indicates that the family was therefore of Greek or Norman origin in the male line. This is nonsense. It would be like saying that any boy named Cesare was descended in the male line from Julius or Augustus Caesar. By 1400, with Sicily under Spanish control, the only surviving ethnic community with its own language were the Jews; everybody else spoke Sicilian, Italian (more formally) or Catalan, with some Greek preserved in a few tiny Orthodox monasteries in the Nebrodi Mountains.

A family, of course, can be said to exist only from the date that it can be identified (with a hereditary surname) through the male line. An aristocratic family named for its feudal estate (in Sicilian history Hauteville and Savoy are obvious royal examples) may have originated in the thirteenth century, while the descendants of a foundling may only trace their lineage, and therefore their "family," to the nineteenth century, beyond which there is no documented indication of parentage. The spellings of Sicilian surnames changed over time (since the fifteenth century), but not nearly so much as in some parts of Europe.

Particularly outside Italy, many Sicilian descendants believe themselves (usually erroneously) to be the descendants of noblemen simply because they coincidentally share the surnames of titled families - Moncada, Lanza, Alliata, Grimaldi - to which they are not, in fact, related. This kind of supposition is easily addressed by accurate lineal research (genealogy). Sicily's aristocracy was a powerful force into the 1950s; anybody descended from it certainly has mountains of "proof" through feudal records, the ownership of large tracts of land and authentic family history. An isolated phenomenon that creates confusion is a servant's assumption of his employer's surname, which is why so many families in Castelbuono are called Ventimiglia, the name of the count who owned the town.

Incidentally, most of those colorful, self-serving (but patently absurd) stories about certain noble families being descended from Norman or German knights of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries are ridiculous pseudo-history fabricated during the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries when these families acquired titles of nobility by purchasing feudal estates, to which the titles of marquis, count or baron were attached. Otherwise, most of them probably would be in Y haplogroup R1b instead of J2 (Sicilian population genetics is a topic unto itself). In fact, very few of the noble families that survive today are mentioned in the records of the Vespers or the oldest-surviving Sicilian feudal roll of 1296, or represented (heraldically) in Steri Castle's Hall of Barons.

Another development is of less relevance to most families living today yet indicative of feudal history. Beginning around 1070, as most of the knights of the Norman kings of Sicily became enfeoffed vassals, they began to assume the names of their new lands as simple toponyms, so a knight named Robert became Robert of Paternò, Roberto de Paternò in the vernacular. That's why many Norman families of that period have names which sound Italian, Greek or Arabic. In other words, the Norman knight who became feudal lord (or "baron") of Caltanissetta, a town with an Arabic name, came to be known as "de Caltanissetta." One notes in particular how Lucy of Hauteville, a cousin of King Roger, is known to us as "Lucy of Cammarata" for the town she was given. The same phenomenon occurred in Norman England, which is why many of the knights and lords mentioned in Doomsday Book bear what sound like Saxon surnames. Heraldry also comes into play here. In some cases, a coat of arms literally represents a surname - a lion for Leone or an olive tree for Oliviero.

There are observations to be made regarding surnames borne among specific minorities and three in particular, namely Albanians, Jews and Spaniards.

In the decades before 1500 a number of Albanian families fleeing the Ottoman expansion settled in southern Italy. With a few exceptions, such as Clesia and Matranca, they assumed Italian-sounding surnames rather than identifiably Greek or Albanian ones. That's because in Albania at that time non-hereditary patronymics were in wide use while hereditary surnames were rare.

The Jews of Sicily were converted or expelled in 1493. There is no way to determine with certainty that a particular family was Jewish based on its surname alone. Tracing Jewish roots in Sicily necessitates a degree of historical knowledge extending beyond onomatology. It has become a cliché to presume that families around Italy bearing the names of large cities were originally Jewish. This was true in a few cases but is not a general rule. Most of the Jewish families who remained in Sicily as converted Christians (anusim) assumed Sicilianized surnames; some took the surnames of the noblemen who had been their baptismal sponsors (godfathers).

From 1282 until the early eighteenth century Sicily was ruled by a succession of monarchs based in Spain or at least originating there. The occasional arrival of their Spanish-born subjects to settle parts of Sicily left underpopulated by epidemics or migration explains a number of such surnames, particularly Alvares (sometimes translated Alvaro), Censuales, Gonzales, Fernandez, Perez, Diaz, Garsia and Ramirez. Cusmano may be an Italianized form of Guzman. Lopez and Lupes may have become Lupo. In some cases Ventura and Luna may be of Spanish origin but they might just as likely be Sicilian. Ingrassia may come to us from Engracia. Such families worked in farming.

"Maiden names" do not technically exist in Italy, where by tradition a married woman retains her father's surname throughout life.

Another Italian usage, whose origin is similar to the medieval toponym, is the territorial designation or predicato. Similar to the French particule, this suffix indicates what were once the feudal holdings of certain noble families. In some cases the predicato distinguishes one branch from another, so we have Lanza di Trabia and Lanza di Scalea. Apart from this rare onomastic construction there is no way to identify a surname as "aristocratic." Most of these families were ennobled - typically through purchase of feudal land - long after surnames were in use, most often after 1600. While some families have abandoned the predicato out of convenience, it is the only indicator of ancestral nobility legally embraced by Italian law today, titles of nobility and coats of arms not having been recognized officially since 1948.

Let's consider the family history behind a surname. In Sicily the existence of genealogical records and the use of a surname in a specific family over many centuries often permits a lineage to be traced, generation by generation (a direct line of ancestors without gaps between generations), to circa 1500. Sicily's oldest baptismal and marriage records date to around 1520 - and to 1492 in one church in Palermo - with tax census records (rivelli and catasti) every few decades from the same period. This places us to within a few generations of the time when the use of surnames became general in western Europe, and therefore to within a century of the date when the typical family assumed its surname. Ab initio is the term used by genealogists.

In that regard Sicily is unique. No other place on earth offers such extensive (one daresay "complete") genealogical information over so many centuries for so much of its population. In most of western Europe the recording of baptisms and marriages was supposed to begin with the Council of Trent (1545), but in fact these early registers have rarely survived the ensuing centuries. Based on the preservation of such records in Sicily, however, perhaps at least 50% of Sicilians can trace direct lineages well into the sixteenth century; during four hours' research in a parish archive one morning I traced the lineage of an ordinary (non-aristocratic) family in the Nebrodi Mountains from 1850 directly to 1520, and later augmented this (back to around 1480) with land census records. (In central Europe, by comparison, a proven pedigree to 1600 is exceptional; hardly anybody in France or Scotland can prove a pedigree beyond circa 1700, while in Ireland and eastern Europe 1750 is considered remarkable.) Sicily also enjoys Europe's best-preserved feudal (land) records, permitting ready identification of the successive owners of feudal estates from the late Middle Ages until the nineteenth century. (In England, like Sicily once a Norman kingdom, a public depository for records of the manors listed in Doomsday Book was established only in 1926; today identifying entitlement to English manorial lordships is often impossible.)

Another point should be made. In Sicily "oral tradition" in the absence of written records is not a very practical onomastic or genealogical device, nor was it ever very necessary because contemporary accounts of events and descriptions of historical personages were preserved and survive to this day. In Scotland, for example, genealogists have sometimes relied heavily on works such as Blind Harry's poetic Acts and Deeds of Sir William Wallace, written circa 1477 some 170 years after the death of the hero it describes (Wallace was executed in 1305), instead of contemporary sources such as the Lanercost Chronicle. For Sicilian events during the same period, such as the War of the Vespers (1282) and its aftermmath, we have many thousands of pages of royal decrees and detailed contemporary accounts like the lengthy Chronicle of the Rebellion of Sicily against King Charles, completed before 1290.

Perhaps we should destroy a few more myths. While certain very unusual surnames may be associated with a few specific localities (where they are common), there is nothing in the phonetic structure of a Sicilian surname to indicate its specific geographical origin. In this respect, budding genealogists should bear in mind that toponyms like Siracusa, Messina and Catania were assumed outside these localities long after the first people bearing such names had already left these cities. In other words, they were from these places when they took these names. It would be mistaken to think that an ancestor named Messina was living in that city when he assumed the name. In fact, he probably assumed the surname long after he or his father had left Messina and settled in another locality, so it would be a waste of time to search for Marco Messina in Messina or to try to find historical traces of Carlo Catania in Catania. Yet this often happens when a Sicilian descendant (born outside Italy) does not know his ancestors' exact place of birth but presumes that the toponym - probably assumed before 1500 - reflects where they lived in 1600 or 1800.

Contrary to popular belief, double names (not hyphenated in Italian), such as Messina Denaro or Vanni Lupo, usually do not indicate aristocracy but rather an attempt - perhaps centuries ago - to distinguish two large branches of the same family living in the same small locality. In some cases, the second name was actually a nickname, so the large Vanni family might have a branch called "Vanni Lungo" (Tall Vanni) and another called "Vanni Bassetto" (Short Vanni).

Until how recently did Sicilian surnames continue to evolve? Study and observation suggests that by 1700 it was unlikely for the form of a surname to be altered significantly. A prefix or definite article might be dropped (Lo Iacono becoming Iacono) or "I" substituted with "J" (Iacono to Jacono), but by 1700 - indeed by 1600 - documentary information was so important in church records (baptisms, marriages, deaths), tax census lists (rivelli and catasti) and various notarial acts (land transfers) that extreme alterations were unlikely. In fact, they were illegal. What more often occurred were minor modifications in transcription or recording, or simple mistakes; the Sicilian Cuffaro might become the more Italian Coffari, Casato might become Casati. That said, surnames did evolve over time. In the Middle ages Lanza was Lancia. Some names were latinized in older records, for example Di Carlo sometimes became De Carolis and Angelo became Angelus.

In Italy changing one's name is not a simple matter and never has been. Recent legislation (in 2012) has made it easier to change one's surname, simplifying matters where there are births outside marriage or surnames whose modern connotations are comical or vulgar. A law passed in 1928 made it illegal to assign to foundlings surnames indicative of the circumstances of their births (see "Events" below). In the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (pre-1860) an annual royal decree altered the surnames of dozens of subjects who had made formal requests. Troia, for example, refers to the ancient city of Troy but as a surname meant "whore." Surnames like Cane (dog) and Porco (pig) were not always appreciated either.

The following categories include a few of the more frequent surnames in Sicily. It should be remembered that the precise etymologies of some surnames have been lost to time, and that some are open to interpretation. Modern Sicilian (the language as it has existed since 1400) is often characterized by "lazy" pronunciation - thus, for example, we hear phrases such as 'nna cosa cà instead of una cosa qua (a thing here).

• Patronyms: Personal names of immediate ancestors were often used as surnames, among which saints' names were the most common, so Giordano (Jordan), Giuffrida and Giuffré (Godfrey), Vitale (Vitus or Vitalus), Di Mauro (son of Maurice), Basile and Vasile (Basil), Di Stefano (Stephen's son), Di Gaetano (Gaetan's son), Di Giovanni and Vanni (John's son), Di Salvo (Salvatore's son), Bruno (brown-haired but also a saint's name), Tomasi (son of Thomas), Giacalone (from Giacomo, James, but also a locality), as well as the less obvious Polito (from Ippolito), Todaro (from Teodoro). Then there are Clemente, D'Onofrio and others. The far rarer metronyms (or matronyms) were usually given to the children of unwed mothers, for example Di Maria (of Mary, a surname sometimes given to foundlings), D'Anna or D'Alessandra.

• Toponyms: This was the name of a place, usually a city or large town, where a geographically transplanted ancestor is thought to have been born. In the comparatively rare instances of noble families this may be the ancient or medieval name of a barony, feudal manor or geographic region, so Sinagra, Ganzaria, Camastra, Bordonaro, Madonia and Madonita (the Madonie Mountains), Lipari; otherwise Palermo, Trapani (or Trapanese or Di Trapani), Messina (or Messinese or Messineo), Siragusa (sometimes Siracusa or Siracusano), Catania (also Catanese), Sciacca, but also the smaller localities of Caronia, Butera, Burgio, Cammarata, Termini, Vicari, Calascibetta (sometimes Scibetta), Sutera, Castrogiovanni (the city now called Enna), Savoca, Caltagirone, Vizzini, Geraci, Polizzi, Daidone ("from Aidone"), D'Alessandria ("from Alessandria"), Gruttadauria ("Grotta d'Auria," Aurea Cavern near Enna), Mazzara, Pachino. Certain names represent regions beyond Sicilian shores, so Catalano, Toscano, Provenzano, Genovese, Calabrese and Calabrò, Pisano, Romano, Milano, Tarantino ("from Taranto"). Some names are more generically topographical, such as Arena ("sandy" as a beach, from rena, but also a locality) and Costa (coast), Motta (a hill but also the name of a town), Valli (valley), Baglio (a fort or bailey), Montana, Montagna, Monte, Rocca, Inserra (all referring to mountains), Chiaramonte (white mountain), Bosco (woods), Campo (field) and Aiello (small field from Late Latin agellum). Forestieri takes its root from forest but more often referred to any "foreigner" from outside one's own locality.

• Personal Traits or Nicknames: Bevilacqua (water-drinker), Mangiapane (bread eater), Cinquemani (five-hands referring to a thief), Lungo (tall), Grasso (fat), Biondo (blond), Moro (dark hair or complexion, also mulberry grower or Moor in a play), Russo (red hair or reddish complexion), Bianco (grey-haired), Lupo (wolf-like), Cane and Guzzo (dog), Falcone (having a falcone's courage), Gatto (cat-like), Vecchio (old), Magrì (thin), Mancuso and Mancino (left-handed), Felice (happy), Piccolo and Tantillo (small or short), Rizzo and Rizza (curly-haired), Bonsignore (good man), Bellomo (handsome man), Bonfiglio (good son), Quattrocchi (literally "four eyes"), Pappalardo (a fat father or grandfather), Gambino (short-legged), Pedone and Scarpello (big foot), Peloso and Spinoso (hairy), Amico (friend), Grillo ("cricket" for a small person or perhaps a singer), Vella (from "bella" meaning "beautiful"), Scozzari (tortoise, meaning slow but also ugly), Piscitello (fish, for a good swimmer), Polombo (dog fish), Gurrieri (fighter or "warrior," akin to guerriero), Occhipinti (literally "painted eyes"), Spanò ("unkempt beard" from Greek spanòs), Pisciotto and Caruso (boy or young man), Aricò (rustic), Ianuzzo (lazy), Dolce and Dolci (literally "sweet" referring either to a one's character, a pastry chef or a bee keeper), Geloso (jealous).

• Professions: Ferraro and Azzaro (smith), Contadino (farmer), Calzolaio (shoemaker), Notaro (notary), Medici, (physician), Tintore (dyer), Marino ("sailor" but also the given name Marinus), Finocchiaro (fennel gatherer), Fichera, Fico and Ficarra (fig grower, but Ficarra is also a town), Saccaro and Saccà (water vendor named for his water sack), Olivieri (olive grower), Meli (apple farmer), Muratore (brick-layer), Paglia and Pagliaro (hay harvester), Pecoraro or Pastore (shepherd), Porcaro (pig farmer), Vaccaro (cowherd), Lo Bue (oxen driver but also somebody strong like an ox), Cannizzaro (thatcher or cane farmer), Jacono (from diacono, deacon), Cannistraro and Cannistra (basket weaver), Cuffaro and Coffari (chest maker), Balistreri (crossbow maker), Cavallaro (horse breeder), Calderone and Calderaio (pot maker), Bottaro (cooper, a maker of wine casks), Zappa, Zappalà and Zappatore (a hoe and its user), Falzone (a sickle and its user), Mazza (a mace or club), Mastrosimone (Simon the teacher or master craftsman), Mastrangelo (Angelo the teacher or master craftsman), Spadaro and Spataro (literally "sword-maker" referring to cutlers in general), Castagna and Castano (chestnut grower), Impellizzeri (furrier), Sartori (tailor), Abbate and Badessa (abbot and abbess).

• Flora and Fauna: These names often reflect rural professions or locations. Capri and Capraro (goatherd), Platania (plane trees or sycamores), Palma (palm) or Palmieri (palm grower), Noce or Nocellaro (walnut grower), Mendolaro, Amendolia and Mandalà (almond grower), Fragalà (strawberry grower but also a town, the name of which derives from Arabic Farah Allah for "Joy of Allah"), Bruccoleri (grower or seller of broccoli), Puleo (a kind of mint), Cipolla (onion grower), Gelsomino (jasmine). Galletti and its variants (such as Gallo) mean "rooster" but also refer to a noisy or arrogant man; Gallina and Galla are hens while Capone is a castrated rooster. Crisanti and Grisanti probably derive from the Greek krysanthis, golden flower.

• Events: The most common are names of months (so Di Maggio, D'Aprile), holidays, or events indicating birth outside marriage, namely D'Ignoti (unknown parents), Trovato (foundling), Esposito (from ex positum, "of this place"), Proietti ("cast out"), Di Dio (of God), Deodato (God-given), Mulé (literally "mule" but often a reference to a child of unknown parentage). Donato may be in this category but is also the name of a saint, Donatus, in many cases. Settimo is a seventh-born child, Quinto the fifth-born and so forth. Alba and Mattina commemorate early-morning births; Tramontana might indicate a birth at sunset or somebody from the north. Privitera probably derives from the phrase "privi di terra" (landless) in public records. Some names are based on greetings, so Bonanno (Happy New Year), Bongiorno and Bondí (Good Day). Others are more specifically religious: Sperandeo (God-believing), Aiutamicristo (Christ help me) and Mantegna (from "Dio ti mantegna" God keep you), Abbagnato ("bathed" meaning baptized).

• Folk Characters: Papa rarely indicates that an ancestor was a pope but rather that somebody acted that part in a folk play. Other characters are Principe (prince), Nobile (nobleman), Conti (from conte, count), Contini ("little count"), Barone (baron, often ascribed to the pompous), Marchese (marquis), Strega (witch), Monaco (monk), Parrino (priest), Lo Jacono (deacon, probably more a reference to the vocation), Cavaliere (knight, sometimes ascribed to the gallant), Paggio (page), Scudieri and Scudari (esquire), Greco (a Greek), Piscopo (bishop), Villano and Villico (peasants), Contadino (farmer), Saraceno and Moro (Moor but Moro can also be a mulberry grower), Ballarino (dancer), Canzoneri (singer). Lombardo is a Lombard but sometimes a shopkeeper; Spagnuolo is literally a Spaniard but more often an arrogant person.

A good introduction to Italian onomatology (in English) is Joseph Fucilla's Our Italian Surnames, first published in 1949, but the definitive Sicilian onomastic study, listing most Sicilian surnames and their localities of highest frequency, is Gerolamo Caracausi's Dizionario Onomastico della Sicilia, published in 1994 in two volumes with a total of nearly 1800 pages. The writing in this page's illustration is Sicilian for "Here I am!"

About the Author: Historian Luigi Mendola has written for various publications, including this one.

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© 2002 L. Mendola and Best of Sicily